ABIDJAN/YAMOUSSOUKRO, 25 March (IRIN) - Thousands of people in Cote d'Ivoire have had to open their doors to friends and acquaintances displaced by an armed conflict that broke out in the West African country in September 2002. From one day to the next, they have had to provide accomodation, food and sometimes clothing to the internally displaced persons (IDPs).
However, many complain, that despite their sacrifices - and sometimes those of the IDPs themselves - they receive no assistance from the authorities.
Yao Adou Nguessan's two-roomed home in the Ivorian capital, Yamoussoukro, was just about what she needed, but she had to share her bedroom with three relatives who fled the central town of Bouake when it fell to the rebels in September. Her sitting room of six square metres serves as a bedroom for five other IDPs. All told, 14 relatives had landed at her doorstep but the other six live in a room she rented for them in the neighbourhood for FCFA 8,000 per month. [One US dollar is equivalent to about FCFA 610.]
"With FCFA 1,500 my three children and I were able to have three meals a day," Nguessan, a seamstress, told IRIN. With the additions to her household, her daily expenses on food alone went up to FCFA 3500. The additional expenses add up to a significant sum in a country where many people earn less than 75,000 CFA francs per month.
New coping mechanisms
She has had to adopt new coping mechanisms. Instead of buying food in Yamoussoukro, she travels each week to one of the surrounding villages, where she buys about 250 kg of plantains and yams at much cheaper prices. However, that is usually not enough so she supplements it with rice which she purchases in town. For each meal, she says, she needs four kg. "All the savings I had have gone towards boarding and lodging my IDPs," she said. "I also had to foot the delivery bill when one of them gave birth here."
As at 10 March 2003 there were about 700,000 IDPs in Cote d'Ivoire, according to Aboke Damaz of the Solidarity and Humanitarian Action Unit at the Ministry of Solidarity, Health and Social Security. These included over 97,000 people displaced from the hinterland and more than 3,000 "deguerpis", people displaced after the government ordered the security forces to demolish shantytowns following the armed uprising on 19 September that marked the start of the rebellion. The authorities said the shanties had to be destroyed because they posed a security threat.
The Solidarity and Humanitarian Action Unit receives donations from institutions and individuals, which it gives to various structures for distribution to IDPs. These structures include reception centres, where some IDPs are accomodated, and social centres, where they are registered and given assistance. They do not include the host families, some of which accomodate record numbers of displaced persons.
Some homes accomodate as many as 80 people
N'Dri Youbouet, for example, had 80 people in his five-bedroom house when IRIN visited him in Yamoussoukro in February. They had all fled Bouake, 100 km north of the capital, after rebels took it over in September 2002. Some were relatives, others were simply people from his home village. "We've really had a hard time looking after the displacees," he told IRIN.
Since 24 September 2002, when the IDPs started arriving in his home, his expenses had almost doubled. The amount he spent each week on food went from FCFA 10,000 to FCFA 18,000. His water bill used to be FCFA 5,000 for every two months, but increased to FCFA 12,000. His electricity bill jumped sky high. "I must admit it's been weighing me down both financially and psychologically," said the former public servant who retired nine years ago.
Still, he said, he tried to do everything he could to keep up an appearance of happiness and make sure that the atmosphere in the home was good so that the IDPs did not think the family was accomodating them against its will, especially since things were difficult for the IDPs themselves and not just on the material plane. For example, Youbouet's daughter, Appoline, had had no news of her husband since she left Bouake with their two children. "I cannot tell you whether he has been killed or not," she said with tears in her eyes.
She, like many of the IDPs in the hinterland and their hosts, had the impression that all assistance was concentrated in Abidjan since, every now and then, NGOs and other groups could be seen on television announcing that they had provided aid for the IDPs, but she and her relatives had receive nothing in Yamassoukro.
Surviving on help from friends
However, in Abidjan, too, host families complain. Often, the little assistance they receive comes not from an official body but from friends, as in Bernadette Sia's case. When 19 people fleeing fighting in the west of the country arrived at her home at the end of October, a family friend offered a 50-kg bag of rice, which lasted one week.
Within weeks, the 375,000 CFA francs she had painstakingly saved over the years had been used up and eight of the 19 had to look for accomodation elsewhere. A friend who worked at the African Development Bank (ADB) headquarters in Abidjan sometimes gave her money - 5,000 CFA here, 20,000 there - but when the ADB relocated its staff from Abidjan in connection with the insecurity in the country, that assistance dried up.
Damaz, who is in charge of the social centres set up by the Ministry of Solidarity, Health and Social Security to assist displaced persons, confirmed that the host families were not receiving aid. "The mission of the social centres is not to intervene directly in the host families," he said. However, he added, all registered IDPs living with host families had a right to assistance.
The big question was whether there was enough food aid to go around. Aboke said that his ministry planned to provide 23 mt of rice to IDPs through the 15 social centres between 14 and 27 March. Each IDP has a right to 250 grammes of rice per day, according to norms set by the ministry. Giving the example of how hard it was to respond to the needs of the IDPs, he said the social centre in Abidjan's North Cocody neighbourhood had registered 6,878 vulnerable persons, both IDPs from the hinterland and "deguerpis". The centre, he said, would receive 1,600 mt of rice for one day. Asked what the IDPs would receive after that, he said: "Those are the difficulties we face".
Urgent need for psychological assistance
But while food ranked high among the heads of households' priorities where assistance was concerned, followed by sleeping mats and clothing, they were much more concerned that the IDPs were not receiving non-material help either. The IDPs' main need, they said, was counselling by psychologists to ease the traumatic experiences they had gone through. Some had narrowly escaped death. Others had seen dead bodies scattered along roads.
"Some of us have nightmares at night. We dream about atrocities committed by the rebels," 19-year-old Fabrice Doly said.
Many of the IDPs had harassing journeys to safety, as in the case of Fulgence Doly who said he, his wife, three children and 80-year-old mother walked for 62 kms after an attack on the western town of Duekoue, where they lived. He was among 47 IDPs who, like Fabrice, shared Emmanuel Doly's six-bedroom home in the high-income suburb of Cocody with his host's 17-member family. At night, some people slept in the bedrooms while others made do with the corridors, kitchen, balcony and sitting room. In most cases bed was either a mat or clothes > heaped on the floor. "Still it's better than sleeping under the cocoa trees," Fulgence said. He worked with the National Rural Development Agency (ANADER) in Duekoue. Displacement has reduced him to a state of dependency.
Dao Pena Nicholas also lives with the Doly's, along with six other members of his household. He needs to travel frequently to go to the city centre to fix his pension papers but often he does not have money for transport. Not being able to do anything for his family was tough, he said. "Each time they want this, they want that," he told IRIN. "Personally I'm obliged to leave the house to get away from the pressure. In any case I don't have the means to do anything for them." Sometimes he goes and hangs out at the lottery kiosk. At other times he simply walks around the neighbourhood.
The mental health issue cannot be overemphasized, according to Rosa Malango of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Access to mental health services is essential, given the post-trauma stress and psychological reactions that result from moral and physical aggression undergone before, during or after displacement, she told IRIN.
However, other needs are also important, added Malango, who is a programme officer at OCHA's West Africa Regional Support Office in Abidjan. According to the UN guiding principles on internal displacement, she noted, national authorities should at the very least provide internally displaced persons with and ensure safe access to essential food, potable water, basic shelter and housing, appropriate clothing; and essential medical services and sanitation.
[The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement can be accessed at http://www.reliefweb.int/ocha_ol/pub/idp_gp/idp.html]
In Cote d'Ivoire, given the sudden nature of the crisis and the high number of IDPs, about 700,000 according to UN figures, it has been observed that there is an imbalance between the food-related needs expressed by the displaced persons and the assistance they receive from the government, humanitarian organisations and donors, Malango said.
Institutions that do assist the IDPs include the World Food Programme (WFP), which has provided food to displaced persons in both government-controlled and rebel-held areas, and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) which runs a project which helps ensure that displaced children are able to attend school.
Despite such efforts, assistance does not reach everyone who needs it. For example, some children do not go to school. The authorities had delayed the start of the school year for displaced children from October to the beginning of January. However, those displaced after January are often unable to find places, as in the case of the 26 displaced children in the Doly household. Then there are the medical needs. Koffi Henry Kouakou, a retired teacher who suffers from hypotension, lost all his medical papers when he fled the western town of Facobly over three months ago. Since then he has gone without medication.
IDPs and heads of host families said they hoped that someone would eventually pay attention to their plight. "We feel left out," N'Dri Youbouet said, "whereas the state would never had been able to handle all these people if the host families had refused to accomodate the majority of them."
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